Palin and Alaska's Muslim Population

By Michael Isikoff

Most Alaskans may seem excited about Gov. Sarah Palin’s selection as John McCain’s running mate. But there’s at least one group of her constituents that has had a more subdued reaction: the state’s Muslims. There are only about 2,000 to 3,000 Muslims in Alaska, and, while there are no mosques, Anchorage (which is home to most of the state's Muslims) does have an Islamic Community Center, located in a rented office in a strip mall, where members pray on Fridays. But Osama Obeida, the center’s vice president, said his group has never had any contacts at all with Alaska’s governor. No meetings, no invitations to state ceremonies, no pro forma letters commemorating the observance of Islamic holy days. “She has never taken the initiative,” Obeidi told NEWSWEEK.

Obeidi is a 49-year-old Palestinian American who runs an art gallery (featuring prints of bears and wolves) with his 82-year-old father Mousa Obeida, a refugee who left Ramallah in the 1950s and counts himself as Alaska’s first Muslim. Osama Obeidi acknowledged that the Anchorage Muslim community has never reached out to the governor either—nor did it have any dealings with previous Alaska governors. “We don’t like to get involved in politics,” he explains. Still, the lack of  contact has left Alaskan Muslim leaders underwhelmed about Palin’s presence on the national ticket. “Maybe she doesn’t know we have a community of Muslims here,” said Lamin Jobarteh, a Wells Fargo banker (originally from Gambia) who is president of the Islamic center.

Its not as though Alaska’s Muslims don’t have issues they’re concerned about. Osama Obeidi said he and his father have been repeatedly hassled at Ted Stevens Airport when they fly to see their extended family in the Palestinian West Bank. “They keep us for three hours,” said Mousa Obeidi. "They ask us, “Where are you going? Who are you going to see?’” Osama Obeidi said he was even briefly arrested a few years ago when he landed in Germany after leaving Anchorage on his way to Jerusalem. That prompted him and other members of the Islamic center to seek a meeting with Sen. Lisa Murkowski to complain about their treatment. After the meeting, Osama Obeidi said the scrutiny from Homeland Security officials at the Anchorage airport tapered off. But, he said, the group never thought of raising its concerns with Palin.

Bill McAlister, the governor’s spokesman, said Palin’s lack of interaction is not by design. “I don’t know that it's ever came up” he said when asked why the governor has never met with the state’s Muslims. “Certainly there was no attempt to exclude Muslims.” By contrast, Palin has visited with members of the state’s Jewish community (about the same size as the state’s Muslim community) and spoke at an Anchorage synagogue last year. (Escorted by Sen. Joe Lieberman, she also met with representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at the Republican National Convention last week and told the group how she has an Israeli flag in her office in Juneau, according to David Gottstein, an Anchorage investment banker who invited her to meet with the AIPAC group.) But McAlister said this does not signify any bias against Muslims on Palin’s part—even if, as McAlister conceded, he doesn’t know whether Palin has “specifically” met any Muslima. “She’s not a bigot,” he said. “I’m not aware of anyone she has snubbed.”

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